September-October 2019 | Bethesda Magazine

One Step at a Time

Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years ago, the owner of a Kentlands ballet studio won't let the disease rule her life

Hope MacDonald with students at Bella Ballet. Photo by Liz Lynch

On a February afternoon two years ago, Hope MacDonald was enjoying a sauna after completing her usual 90-minute workout at LA Fitness in Gaithersburg: reps with 15-pound weights for each arm, then a 45-minute run on the treadmill.

At age 28, she owned and operated Bella Ballet, a Kentlands ballet studio for children that Washington Family Magazine the year before had named as having the Best Arts Program and also as Best Ballet or Dance Studio for families. Her patient and exuberant instruction had produced a fierce devotion among her students, many of them no taller than a daylily, and their parents.

MacDonald, who was living in Gaithersburg, had also recently gotten engaged to “the most supportive partner I could ever even dream of” and was spending a lot of time—too much time, she would joke—on Pinterest, fantasizing about her dream wedding. It was set for December, just 10 months away.

She came from a close-knit family and often saw her parents and three siblings who lived in Virginia. MacDonald also spent a lot of time being “auntie” to her nine nieces and nephews.

Life was good.

So why, as she unwound in the warmth of the sauna, was she seeing double when she stared at one of the heated rocks? She looked at another. Two again. And then another. Still two—and they were blurry.

When she covered her right eye, she saw only one rock. Her mind raced. Were her new contacts causing the problem? Did she have a brain tumor?

The emergency room at the Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville is a busy suburban facility with about two dozen beds. MacDonald was propped up on one inside a curtained cubicle. It had been less than a week since she started seeing double. She had just returned from getting an MRI in the radiology department, where for 90 minutes she had to stay motionless inside a dark tube while a loud pulsing noise echoed inside her head as an imaging machine took pictures of her brain.

Nervous, she was waiting for a doctor to tell her the results.

It had been a circuitous route from the sauna to the ER. MacDonald was seeing double in her right eye, and the sight in her left was blurred. The weekend after her workout, a photographer at a dance recital at her studio noticed that the white portion of her right eye—the sclera—was barely visible.

That Sunday night, her fiance, Brad Bingham, took her to the emergency room at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda to have her eyes examined. Just dry eyes, she remembers the ER physician saying before sending her home with a prescription for eye drops.

“Are you sure this isn’t neurological?” MacDonald asked. “I’m 28 years old and I have double vision.”

The next day was a whirlwind. Not satisfied that drops were the answer, she and Bingham saw an ophthalmologist who told her to come back in three weeks if her symptoms persisted. Still concerned, they went to an optometrist who sent her to a neuro-ophthalmologist in Hagerstown. He said she needed an MRI.